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When traveling overseas, deciphering the country's voltage, frequency, and socket type can be as confusing as trying to read a menu without knowing the local language.

Follow these tips to charge your electronics the right way.

When Do I Need to Buy a Travel Adapter?

Plug adapters are completely different from voltage converters and transformers, and it's important to know how to distinguish between the three before heading overseas with pricey electronics and appliances.

Plug adapters make devices with two flat parallel prongs (used in North America) compatible with outlets used overseas, such as the round parallel prongs used in Europe and parts of Asia, for example.

Dual-voltage devices will function overseas after adding a simple plug adapter, which you can typically buy on the Internet for a few dollars.

Portable electronics, such as cell phones and laptops, typically support the full range of voltages used throughout the world -- both 110-120V (used in the United States) and 220-240V (used in most other countries). Check the product information label on your device to see if it can be used overseas without a transformer -- if the compatible input voltage is listed as 100-240V, then you should be good to go.

Though many portable electronics can operate on a wide range of voltages, having an adapter is a must when traveling to a country with a different socket type. Socket types are often consistent throughout an entire continent, though there are certainly exceptions. You'll need two different adapters if you're traveling to China after visiting Hong Kong, for example.

What's the Difference Between Voltage Converters and Transformers?

Voltage converters and transformers are used to convert a foreign voltage to the native voltage of your device.

Most portable electronics will simply need a plug adapter, but non-portable devices, such as televisions and kitchen appliances, only support the voltage used in the country they're sold in.

What does this mean for travelers? You can't purchase an alarm clock in Europe and use it in the United States, for example, without pairing the plug adapter with a transformer -- the same goes for when you bring a hairdryer or curling iron from the U.S. for your London vacation.

Heating appliances and those with motors, such as a hairdryer or fan, require voltage converters, while electronics require transformers. If you're trying to power both your alarm clock and hairdryer overseas, you'll need both a transformer (for the alarm clock) and a voltage converter (for the hairdryer).

Converters are readily available at airports and electronics stores, such as RadioShack (www.radioshack.com), and can be purchased online for less than $20.

More difficult to track down, however, are low-wattage transformers designed for small electronics, such as computer printers or stereo equipment. These transformers are often larger than voltage converters, can cost more than $20, and typically weigh several pounds. Be sure to purchase a transformer that supports wattage higher than that required for powering your device. If your printer uses 150 watts when printing, you'll need a transformer that supports more than 150 watts. An alarm clock, on the other hand, requires less power to operate, and won't require such a powerful transformer.

Luckily, low-wattage transformers are seldom needed to power portable electronics that most travelers carry. Since printers and alarm clocks rarely travel with you overseas, chances are you'll only need to buy a converter for your hairdryer.

Safety Tips for Using Electronics While Overseas

If you happen to accidently plug a 110-120V hairdryer into a 220-240V socket (after using a plug adapter, of course), your hairdryer's fuse may kick in, saving your device and perhaps even yourself.

It's never wise to take a chance when it comes to electricity, however. If you plug a single-voltage device into a higher-voltage electrical system, then you risk permanently damaging the device, and perhaps even electrocuting yourself.

Remember: Never use an adapter to plug in your device unless you're sure that it's compatible with the voltage used in the country you're visiting.

If in doubt, consult your device's manufacturer, or ask the hotel staff if you forget to check before you leave home. Hotels in large cities have experience with international travelers, and face power-related questions on a daily basis.

Other Resources

There are countless resources related to international power available on the Internet, but this comprehensive site offers a list of countries, along with the voltage and socket type.

Was your curling iron responsible for bringing down your hotel's entire electrical system? Did you "fry" a gadget while traveling abroad? Share your experiences along with any power-related travel tips in the comments section below.

Having visited nearly 30 countries on 5 continents in the last decade, Zach Honig's fascination with travel has clearly become an obsession. Follow Zach on Twitter (@zachhonig), or check out his blog, Tech, Travel and Tuna, to keep up to date on his latest adventures.